Longboard of the Law

By Andy Faught | Photos by Stephanie Rau

As the first Native Hawaiian judge in Minnesota history, Keala Ede ’00 brings a commitment to justice to his courtroom—and a taste of surf culture to the shores of Lake Superior

Lake Superior isn’t likely to conjure images of a surfer’s paradise. But nearly 4,000 miles away from Kawaiku‘i Beach Park in his native Hawai‘i, Keala Ede ’00 isn’t quibbling about the chilly breakers, which can exceed 20 feet in stormy conditions. 

Keala Ede ’00 prepares to surf on Lake Superior in Minnesota.
Keala Ede ’00 prepares to surf on Lake Superior in Minnesota. Photo by Ladislaus Strzok

“I never thought that I would surf with tall pine trees lining the shore and snow-covered slopes, but there’s beauty in that, too,” says Ede, who last September was appointed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, making him the first Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) judge in the North Star State’s history. “It’s one little way I try to stay connected to my upbringing and my culture.”

In appointing Ede to fill a vacancy created by the retirement of the Hon. Denise D. Reilly, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz called Ede a “tremendous addition” to the court for “his commitment to public service and dedication to ensuring fair and equitable justice.” Judges are chosen in nonpartisan elections to six-year terms, and Ede will run for a full term this November. 

Intermediate appellate courts are commonly described as “error-correcting courts.” In reviewing final decisions of Minnesota trial courts, state agencies, and local governments, Ede doesn’t preside over new trials. Instead, he sits on a three-judge panel to which parties submit written briefs and oral arguments explaining why they believe the decision they are appealing was factually or legally incorrect. Appeals court judges are able to affirm, reverse, or remand cases for additional proceedings. 

Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Keala Ede
Judge Ede, photographed inside the Minnesota Judicial Center in St. Paul.

The judgeship is the latest step in a journey—true to his first name, which means “path” in Hawaiian—that includes stints in private practice in Honolulu and Minnesota, and with the Hennepin County District Court, the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, and the Federal Public Defender's Office. It was at the attorney general’s office that Ede successfully prosecuted criminal Medicaid fraud as well as a for-profit college’s use of deceptive business practices. 

The son of a Native Hawaiian mother and a father of Norwegian ancestry—the two met as undergraduates at Pacific University in Oregon—Ede grew up on the island of O‘ahu. He was drawn to Occidental not just because his older brother, Kaleo ’97, was enrolled there, but also because he sought a life steeped in the humanities. He also competed on the water polo and swim teams and was an Academic All-American in both sports while at Oxy. 

Growing up in a place of natural beauty, Ede cultivated an interest in both math and science. (In one middle school science project, he grew sweet corn in soil gathered with permission from the acidic slopes of Kīlauea volcano.) Once he got to Occidental, he figured he’d pursue a career in those disciplines.

Away from the classroom, however, a legal case erupting out of Hawai‘i and culminating at the Supreme Court would change the trajectory of his career. In a 7-2 vote, the majority ruled in Rice v. Cayetano (2000) that the Hawai‘i Constitution violated the 15th Amendment voting protections against race-based qualifications. The decision gave non-Native Hawaiians the ability to vote for trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which was established to improve the well-being of Native Hawaiians through advocacy, research, community engagement, land management, and the funding of community programs. 

“The case was very big news throughout all of its proceedings during my college years,” Ede recalls—the original trial court decision was in May 1997—“and was a very big reason why I decided to go to law school. It opened my eyes to the ways in which the law can affect individual rights.” Ede got involved in Occidental’s Pre-Law Society and would graduate magna cum laude with a double major in politics and psychology. He later earned a law degree at UC Berkeley, where he met his wife, Prairie, who was raised in Minnesota. 

“One of the biggest things that Oxy emphasized from start to finish was critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, and the ability to communicate effectively,” he adds. “I’ve used those throughout my educational and professional career.” 

Keala Ede is sworn in to the American Samoa bar in 2009 by Michael Kruse, Chief Justice of the High Court of American Samoa.
Wearing a traditional Samoan i’e faitaga skirt and ula beads, Ede is sworn in to the American Samoa bar in 2009 by Michael Kruse, chief justice of the High Court of American Samoa. Ede served as a public defender in the territory from 2009 to 2010. Photo by Prairie Bly

While Ede is geographically far from his roots, Hawai‘i is never far from his thoughts. His St. Paul chambers contain a number of mementos that “help with the homesickness,” he says. Those items include a makaloa mat made of plaited sedge plant that once belonged to his great-grandmother, a statue of a Native Hawaiian man holding a canoe paddle and dancing the hula, and a painting by his aunt depicting Pele—goddess of fire and volcanoes in Hawaiian mythology.

With Prairie, a former legal services attorney who now works for the Minnesota State Department of Labor and Industry, Ede frequently gives his three children a taste of their heritage. He volunteers with a weekly Native Hawaiian music, dance, and culture class in which his kids participate. The family brings Hawaiian food back from O‘ahu and seeks it out near their home in Bloomington. (Last year, Prairie made poi for Keala’s birthday: “She actually found frozen poi at a local store,” Ede says.)

Brother Kaleo, a pediatric rheumatologist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, says he and his wife, Camille (Clouse) Ede ’98, served as “surrogate parents” to Keala, whom he praises for his “thoughtfulness, empathy, and truthfulness.”

Camille, an English and comparative literary studies major at Oxy, met her husband-to-be while grilling Korean barbecue on the balcony of Norris Hall. The scent, evocative of home, sent Kaleo on a hunt for the source. “When I saw him, our eyes locked, and we’ve been together ever since,” says Camille, who grew up in Arizona. 

In both Kaleo and his brother, Camille sees the influence of their home state: “What Hawai‘i means to me is being accepting of others and being willing to understand diversity in a small place. And because it’s this isolated place, people are industrious and learn how to problem solve.” Keala is something more, she adds: “He’s a very sensitive person who cares about things and issues.”

Keala Ede ’00 surfs on Lake Superior in Minnesota.
Catching a wave on Lake Superior. Photo by Joe Herron

“He’s excelled in the law because he’s been able to connect with people and put himself in other people’s shoes,” Kaleo adds. “That sets him apart.” 

While surfing may run in Ede’s blood, so does a commitment to judicial integrity. “I believe that the work of public servants is to work for the greater good,” he says. “Although there’s a lot of distrust in our democratic institutions right now, I have always admired people who are committed to upholding the rule of law and equal justice for all, regardless of background or political persuasion. I try to be one of those people every day.”

Faught wrote “The New Philosophers” in the Fall 2023 issue.